All entries for Wednesday 12 July 2006

July 12, 2006

VLEs in decline?

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Just read an interesting article by Michael Feldstein in which he considers the implications of a new report on VLE usage in UK higher education between 2001 and 2005. (You can find the report here if you'd like to take a look; it's a PDF, but it's only 8 pages long plus some appendices.)

The first point which Michael draws out from the report is that commercial VLE usage is in fairly sharp decline:–

… total market share for proprietary VLE’s dropped from 93% to 57% from 2001 to 2005. That’s a decline of nearly 10% a year, with the combination of Open Source and homegrown VLE's now commanding over 40% of the total market.

The second point is that home–grown solutions are on the rise:–

But the real shocker is that the number of homegrown VLE's jumped from 7% in 2001 to an eye–popping 30% in 2005. There are close to three times as many homegrown systems as there are Open Source systems and the growth in market share is more than twice as fast.

Michael speculates that this may be because it's become pretty easy to find open source packages which let you replicate most of what most people do within a VLE:–

Give me a discussion board (eg, JForum) and a system for sharing files (eg, Alfresco), and you’ve given me almost everything that 70%+ of university instructors currently use in their VLE.

And he observes, correctly, I think, that the growth in home–grown solutions may also imply that more institutions are identifying requirements which they don't believe will be met by a commercial VLE. But I think there are other factors at work here too: I think that universities in some cases are becoming uneasy about their dependency on proprietary software. This point isn't necessarily specific to VLE's; it's just as possible to be dependent on your finance system supplier, or the company who manage and trouble–shoot your network, and it exposes the institution to financial risks, availability risks and fitness–for–purpose risks.

I wodner too if another factor at work here might be ethos: certainly our decision to pursue a build rather than buy approach for the web architecture here at Warwick was informed in part by a belief that the adverserial relationship between vendor and customer was less desirable than a collaborative process of development which allowed users, designers and developers all to participate in the process of creating a set of tools. It's not just about whether you can implement feature X or Y, it's the idea that everyone is better off in terms of their involvement, engagement, even enjoyment, if it's possible to have a participative, collaborative process.

And finally, I think the decline in VLE take–up may be due to a realisation that in the end they may be just not very fit for purpose. This isn't just a case of individual universities having their own specific needs, but a more general sense that the fairly rich set of features that VLEs generally provide may not in fact be especially useful in supporting teaching and learning. Paying a lot for a big monolithic system only makes sense if you think it does what you need, or might need in the future. It'll be interesting to see what the equivalent set of statistics in 2010 looks like.

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